Neurology of Stress


I’m gonna tell you a little story about your brain. Don’t worry, all you neurophobes, this will be a simplified, reader-friendly story that you will quickly understand.

This is a story about what happens in your brains when you encounter a stressor. A stressor can be anything that activates you: nightly traffic, someone cheating; and, especially significant for our students, someone trying to fight or attack you.

First let’s look at our players:


For all intents and purposes, we are only going to focus on two areas of the brain: the limbic system (emotion and memory), and the prefrontal cortex (executive functioning).


In the limbic system, we have:

The amygdala (kind of the seat of emotion)

The hippocampus (the seat of memory)


Meanwhile, imagine that you have, in the front of your brain, a personal White House where decisions are made. Every other part of the brain (including the limbic system) reports to this White House, and then this White House decides what will happen.


During normal communication, each part of the brain communicates with the other parts. Specifically, the front of the brain chats with the back, the left side chats with the right, and the amygdala chats with the hippocampus, to help store your memories with the accompanying emotion.

Side note: Ever hear a song that reminded you of a sad time, and as you listened, you actually felt sad again. The amgydaloid-hippocampal connection is to blame.


OK – here’s where it gets interesting.

When the brain is under stress from aforementioned things, communication stops. The brain needs energy to communicate with itself, and when a situation that is perceived to be life-threatening is underway, the brain conserves energy by ending all unnecessary communication.

The limbic system takes over.

So the fight-flight-freeze system we all know – where the eyes get super focused, and hearing increases, and time seems to slow and on and on – this is because the limbic system has the floor. Specifically the amygdala. At this point, the amygdala has sounded the alarm for your body to go into self-preservation mode.

This is helpful when faced with a hungry lion.
This is less helpful when facing a potential fight.

When the limbic system stops communicating with the prefrontal cortex, all logic goes out the window. You are left with a panicking emotional brain whose sole purpose is survival. At this point, you have stopped making responsive decision, and have begun to emotionally react to the situation.


And this is dangerous. This leads to unnecessary violence, to foolish actions that might get you arrested or killed and (in less deadly scenarios) to making a giant ass of yourself (and possibly losing a relationship).


In our dojo classes, we train under simulated stressful situations. Is this effective? You betcha. The brain doesn’t know from real and fake stress – there is but one stress response. Activate it in any way, and you’re training under stress.

The reason to train this way, is to get you used to the simple techniques necessary to keep your brain communicating in times of stress. These techniques include; breath control, deliberately using logical thought, and even just recognizing the early symptoms of stress so as not to lose yourself in the emotional experience.

Maintaining communication in the brain during stressful times can help in every aspect of your life – from working in a stressful job, to keeping your cool during arguments with partners and friends, to getting out of a life-threatening situation intact. Understanding the concepts in this blog is the first step. The next step is to use the knowledge you’ve gained to become responsible for your future actions. And that’s why we train.